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Craig Coley, wrongly convicted and jailed for 39 years, spends first Thanksgiving free with detective who advocated for his release

Craig Coley, wrongly convicted and jailed for 39 years, spends first Thanksgiving free with detective who advocated for his release
Retired police detective Mike Bender, from left, and Craig Coley, who was pardoned of two 1978 murders by Gov. Jerry Brown this week, enjoy a Thanksgiving meal together in Carlsbad. (Courtesy of Bender family)

On his first day free in nearly four decades, Craig Coley sat at the head of a dining room table and dug into a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

There was a lot to be thankful for. Coley, who was wrongly convicted of murder and spent 39 years in prison, celebrated the holiday at the Carlsbad home of the retired police detective who was convinced of his innocence and tirelessly advocated for his release.

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Coley, a former restaurant night manager, had fought unsuccessfully for years to overturn his conviction for a grisly double murder that stunned suburban Simi Valley in November of 1978. When police reopened the case, new tests found that a key piece of evidence used to convict him did not carry any of his DNA.

Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned Coley on Wednesday, clearing him of the murders of his ex-girlfriend Rhonda Wicht, 24, who was beaten, raped and strangled, and her 4-year-old son, Donald, who was smothered in his bed. Coley, who was 31 at the time of his arrest, is now 70.

His first trial had ended in a hung jury. A second jury convicted him of two counts of first-degree murder in 1980, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Mike Bender was a detective with the Simi Valley Police Department in 1989 when he started reading Coley’s case files after hearing concerns about how the investigation was handled.

“As soon as I started reading I knew it was a bad case,” he said in an interview Saturday.

Bender’s concerns were met with silence, though he presented the case over the years to city attorneys, congressmen, the district attorney's office, the state attorney general's office, the Innocence Project and anyone else he could think of.

In 2015, Bender submitted a clemency petition to the governor’s office on Coley’s behalf. Brown asked the Board of Parole Hearings to investigate. A former police detective, captain and officer reported that they believed Coley was wrongfully convicted.

Simi Valley police subsequently reopened the case last year and found the key physical evidence, which was previously thought to be destroyed.

Bender praised Simi Valley Police Chief David Livingstone for spending the time and money on a new investigation. “They could have swept it under the rug,” he said.

After Thanksgiving dinner at Bender’s Carlsbad home, Bender and Coley walked to the beach to smell the fresh air. On Friday, he took Coley shopping and to get a haircut.

On Saturday, Coley visited his late parents’ grave at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park-Hollywood Hills cemetery, where he broke down in tears.

Bender said Coley’s father, a retired Los Angeles police officer named Wilson, died of a heart attack in 1988. He was devastated that he was never able to free his only child from prison.

“Can you imagine as a cop, your son is arrested and you know it’s false?” Bender said. “You don’t even have to be a detective to read this case and know it stunk.”

Bender started a fundraiser on the website GoFundMe to help Coley get acclimated to life outside of prison. Coley is living with Bender for the time being.

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For his part, Bender is glad to take in the man he always believed was innocent. His biggest fear was that he would die before he could see Coley walk free.

“I’ve always believed in doing what’s right,” Bender said. “In this case there was nobody else — I was it. I know I couldn’t have lived with myself if I said ‘It’s not my problem’ or ‘I’m tired.’ ”

While in prison, Coley volunteered for veterans’ affairs, including raising money for Blue Star Mothers of America to send care packages overseas, and as a Bible study mentor. He earned his associate’s degree in theology, a certificate as a biblical counselor and this year received a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies while starting on his master’s degree.

Coley never gave up hope.

“From day one when they arrested me, I told them, ‘Look, do what you wanna do to me, but keep looking'” for the person responsible for the murders, he told CBS Los Angeles. “Don’t stop. You have the wrong man.”

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